by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
When the Americans joined to support the government of South Vietnam to prevent a communist takeover, they could not have guessed that the fall of Saigon in 1975 would compel them, among others, to participate in frenetic evacuations of military personnel and civilians. Most surprising were the targeted efforts, by the U.S., Canada, Australia and France, to ensure that orphaned children were not left behind to face either death or indoctrination with communism. Because of the escalating attacks by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, it was imminent that flight by air would soon be impossible. As such, the rescue efforts involving both private and military transport would be seen as daring and urgent, especially for a child.
Eight-year-old Son Thi Anh Tuyet knows nothing of the machinations of the Vietnam War except the relentless pounding of bombs and the presence of soldiers. Her only memories are of life in the orphanage (with random visits from a woman and a boy) and helping to care for the countless infants. Last Airlift is Tuyet's true story, relating to her exodus and deliverance to a Canadian home for adoption. Her recollections of the disquiet of war, coupled with her perception of herself as unadoptable, because of her polio stricken left foot and leg, imbue the events of her journey with the colour that is uniquely Tuyet.
From her spartan existence at the orphanage to the white Volkswagen van that takes Tuyet and countless babies (in boxes) through the turmoil of the streets to the fenced airfield, Tuyet relies only on what she knows and what she can see, believing her purpose is to be useful in the care of the infants. When another child, Linh, joins the orphans, Tuyet learns that the foreigners are speaking English and that, since she cannot communicate with them, "No" is the best answer to give. Through their numerous flights and eventual arrival in Toronto, Tuyet is flooded with new experiences, from seeing herself in a photograph for the first time (Did she really wear her sadness on her face for all to see? Tuyet asks herself; pg. 43), to wearing underwear, and to being gifted a doll and later a stuffed animal. Even after she meets Mom and Dad and their daughters, Beth and Lara, Tuyet is still convinced she would be going with them only to help care for the girls and a Vietnamese toddler, Aaron, who was being adopted. How Tuyet is able to see past her impaired foot and her orphanage experiences to become a sister and a daughter is a testament to the unconditional love of a family who saw past the qualities Tuyet believed defined her.
Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch mentions in her notes that she had initially intended for Last Airlift to be a piece of historical fiction with the main character as a composite of experiences of many orphans. However, as Marsha Skrypuch pursued her historical research relentlessly, as she always does (see, for example, Making Bombs for Hitler, Scholastic Canada, 2012, and Stolen Child, Scholastic Canada, 2010), the real Tuyet recalled more details about her story, until the author recognized the scope was appropriate for a piece of non-fiction. Surprisingly, readers will find that Last Airlift still follows like a fictionalized account for the reason that, as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. (Okay, not always.) It seems unimaginable that a child, who had felt disconnected from those who were able, from those who were adoptable and from those who welcomed the soldiers who visited the orphanage with candies and toys, be plunged into chaotic circumstances directed by those who look and speak differently from her, into surreal vehicles, and to follow customs unfamiliar to her. It would be a story of speculative fiction, except that it isn't. Tuyet becomes a heroine of her own story, using her fortitude, observations, and humanity to navigate the new territories outside of the orphanage and to make herself fit in.